Look at soldiers for hire shows a strong depth of reporting

08/30/2014 9:58 PM

08/30/2014 10:45 PM

“The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security” by Ann Hagedorn (Simon and Schuster, 293 pages, $28)

Soldiers for hire have long existed. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan accelerated the transformation of mercenaries “from covert and infamous to acceptable and indispensable,” Hagedorn writes. The best known of the private military and security companies is Blackwater, now renamed after a spate of bad publicity, but there are others, seemingly thousands of them, with contracts from the U.S. worth billions of dollars. Many are based in the U.S., others are foreign owned and have an international approach, finding clients wherever possible.

Largely outside of public view, these private, for-profit companies perform the security, logistics, intelligence and other duties that a uniformed military force might be expected to provide. Half of the 16,000 personnel working for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad since the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops are contractors, Hagedorn reports.

The strength of “Invisible Soldiers” is the depth of Hagedorn’s reporting: copious interviews, generous use of sources and a narrative that focuses on people caught in the crossfire, notably Kadhim Alkanani, an Iraqi immigrant who joined the U.S. Special Forces and returned to Iraq to show his loyalty to his new country, only to be mistakenly shot by a U.S. contractor.

If the problems of having large numbers of armed contractors outside the military chain of command are so large and the media scrutiny and political concern so intense, why have the firms proliferated? Hagedorn, in a straightforward, journalistic style, offers a reason: lack of leadership from the White House. None of the wartime presidents in recent decades, she notes, has made a priority out of curbing the growth of military and security contractors.

The second part of Hagedorn’s thesis is a tougher sell: that the reliance on the private companies has become a driver of U.S. foreign policy, encouraging the U.S. to intervene in foreign hot spots that it might otherwise avoid. Still, she deftly explains instances in which the conduct of contractors in Iraq made the U.S. mission more perilous.

“Invisible Soldiers” also reports on the people behind these private companies, some of whom are seemingly the stuff of fiction.

As a final warning, Hagedorn delves into the evolving relationship between the private firms and the drones that are a favorite way of waging war for the U.S. administration. “Once again,” she writes, “the private military and security contractors were entering and locking into markets faster than safeguards and oversight could be established.”

Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

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